Young activists flock to the Florida Capitol to fight for LGBTQ+ rights

Protest as FL House passes restrictions on pronoun use in schools

By: - March 31, 2023 5:18 pm

LGBTQ+ students and their allies marched to the Capitol in Tallahassee on March 31, 2023. (Credit: Mitch Perry)

A crowd estimated at around two hundred mostly young people marched from the Florida State University campus to the fourth-floor rotunda in the state Capitol Friday, decrying what they called a legislative attack on the LGBTQ+ community.

They arrived just as the Florida House of Representatives was voting to support what has been described as “Don’t Say Gay 2.0,” a legislative proposal (HB 1069) that includes restrictions on how pronouns can be used in public schools.

It also allows parents, or even non-parents, greater power to challenge schoolbooks and get them removed from library or classroom shelves for indeterminate periods of time. And it expands last year’s Parental Rights in Education law in prohibiting classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity from just kindergarten to third grade to encompass grades PreK through the eighth grade.

“We’ve been calling it the ‘slate of hate,’” said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida, the state’s biggest LGBTQ+ advocacy group.

“This is all in service to [Gov. Ron] DeSantis’ run for president. He’s trying to outflank Trump to the right and secure the MAGA base and so he is lighting every single culture war on fire. And it has been a censorship and surveillance agenda that has made our state less free. He is dismantling the guardrails of democracy.”

Legislative wave

The volume and tone of such legislation isn’t unique to Florida this spring. State lawmakers, concentrated across the South, have introduced 454 bills that restrict fundamentals like health care, education, and freedom of expression for LGBTQ+ people according to the ACLU.

As protesters swarmed the rotunda and began chanting loudly, Democrats left the chamber to join them, including Jacksonville Rep. Angie Nixon and Pinellas/Hillsborough Rep. Michele Rayner-Goolsby. A few moments later, Democratic House Leader Fentrice Driskell joined them and told the activists that the only way to blunt the attack is to get more Democrats to the polls.

Democratic House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell joined the protest for LGBTQ+ rights on the 4th floor rotunda in the Capitol on March 31, 2023 (photo credit: Mitch Perry)

“When their team shows up, but our team doesn’t, this is what we get,” she said. “But we’re at a pivotal moment, and I know with your presence here today that you understand it. You get it. You will go home to your communities, and you will tell your friends what you have seen. You must be the change that you want to see in the world.”

The rally was organized by the recently established Student Unity Coalition of South Florida, a group advocating for BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color), queer, and trans students from universities in that region.

“With the legislative attacks that’s been happening, we have been seeing a real need for South Florida to become part of the conversation. And we’ve been out of it for too long,” said Sarahi Perez, 19, a sophomore at Miami-Dade College. She agreed with Driskell that the legislation is an “after effect” of failure by Democrats to vote last fall.

According to voting data analyst and Democratic Party consultant Matthew Isbell, Republican turnout was nearly 15% higher than Democrats’ in 2022. That’s in part what led to DeSantis defeating Charlie Crist by more than 19 percentage points, Marco Rubio to defeat Democrat Val Demings in the U.S. Senate race by more than 16 percentage points, and to several county commissions around the state flipping from blue to red.

“We didn’t focus on getting the vote out in Miami,” Perez said. “I’m only one person so I’ve been trying to change that by educating other youth and others.”

Grim landscape

Edith Scheib is a Tallahassee schoolteacher who said she has a nonbinary child. The political landscape feels grim for her, she said, particularly with school boards pulling books because of complaints, in some cases from a single person.

“We read because it teaches us what to do and what not to do. It helps us think. It helps us deal with problems. If we keep the information from our children, they won’t know how to think anymore. It’s not what to think. It’s how to think.”

Other bills moving through the Legislature this session affecting the LGBTQ+ community include HB 1421, which bans gender-affirming care for minors and severely limits it for adults. As the Phoenix’s Danielle J. Brown reported, the measure would make it a crime for doctors to provide treatments such as hormone therapy and puberty blockers to transgender minors.

There’s HB 1423, sponsored by Brevard County Republican Randy Fine. It would charge a person with a first-degree misdemeanor for “knowingly” admitting a minor to an “adult live performance.” The bill would permit the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to remove or suspend licenses of lodging or food establishments that allow minors to attend an “adult live performance.”

As the Phoenix has previously reported, the bill’s definition of “adult live performance” is vague and subjective, and advocates for the LGBTQ+ community worry it will target drag shows.

And there’s HB 1521, under which transgender people could be jailed if they don’t use the bathrooms associated with their sex at birth.

The protest took place on International Transgender Day of Visibility, which the White House acknowledged on Thursday. A written statement said the Department of Justice “is pushing back against extreme laws that seek to ban evidence-based gender-affirming health care.”

Catherine Clark, a freshman at the University of Miami, said she’s only become involved in LGBTQ+ activism since arriving on campus last fall. She finds it empowering to be among similar-thinking people, she said, adding that while today’s rally was great for morale for the community, it wasn’t nearly enough to change the course of Florida politics.

“I really want to encourage everybody here to do the long-term work because rallying, while it’s amazing and it shows how strong we are, it is only short term. It only has a short-term impact. Voting is long term. It is permanent.”

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Mitch Perry
Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has covered politics and government in Florida for more than two decades. Most recently he is the former politics reporter for Bay News 9. He has also worked at Florida Politics, Creative Loafing and WMNF Radio in Tampa. He was also part of the original staff when the Florida Phoenix was created in 2018.

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